183Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Scientic validation of the traditional knowledge of Sikta (Tabernaemontana
sananho, Apocynaceae) in the Canelo-Kichwa Amazonian community
Carmen X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo1, Trinidad Ruiz-Téllez2, José Blanco-Salas2 & Carlos E. Cerón Martínez3
Received: 2 November 2017 / Accepted: 20 February 2018 / Published online: 29 june 2018
Abstract. Tabernaemontana sananho is a tree member of the Apocynaceae family referred to as sikta in Kichwa language.
It is widely used in northern South America as painkiller, stimulant, antiseptic and is also highly valued as a sacred plant. In
this work, we report the traditional knowledge and uses of sikta by the scarcely contacted Kichwa community of Pakayaku
(Pastaza province, Ecuador) and further provide a scientic framework for its scientic validation. A review of the available
literature revealed the presence of a wealth of biologically active indole alkaloids that potentially account for the great
number of medicinal uses of sikta. This case study is illustrative of the importance of scientic validation of traditional
knowledge (i) for indigenous communities —as empowering tool—, (ii) for the sake of scientic knowledge and (iii) for
Keywords: Tabernaemontana; Ecuador; Pastaza; plant uses; indole alkaloids; analgesic; psychotropic.
Validación del conocimiento tradicional de la sikta (Tabernaemontana sananho, Apocynaceae)
en una comunidad canelo-kichwa amazónica
Resumen: Tabernaemontana sananho Ruiz & Pav. (Apocynaceae), es una planta utilizada en el norte de América del Sur,
altamente valorada como sagrada, enigmática y medicinal. El objetivo de este trabajo es evaluar el conocimiento tradicional
rescatado en una comunidad kichwa de la provincia de Pastaza (Ecuador) apenas contactada e investigar el conocimiento
cientíco sobre esta especie. Describimos su uso, documentamos prácticas ancestrales que se mantienen vigentes y
favorecen su conservación. Validamos muchas aplicaciones en base a publicaciones de estudios experimentales de sus
alcaloides indólicos y actividad farmacológica. Este caso práctico enfatiza la importancia de sistematizar cientícamente el
conocimiento tradicional para reforzar el valor de la Biodiversidad y la Conservación.
Palabras clave: Tabernaemontana; Ecuador; Pastaza; usos; alcaloides indólicos; analgésico; psicótropo.
1 Centro de Investigación Biomédicas – CENBIO, Universidad Tecnológica Equinoccial. 170147 Quito (Ecuador).
2 Grupo de Investigación en Biología de la Conservación, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Extremadura. Av. de Elvas, s/n. E-06071 Badajoz
(España). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
3 Herbario Alfredo Paredes (QAP), Universidad Central del Ecuador. 17012177 Quito (Ecuador).
Traditional indigenous knowledge has been often
disregarded as unscientic due to its alleged insufcient
repeatability, inability to provide data for quantitative
analysis and intrinsic lack of tools to measure condence
(Ragupathy & Newmaster, 2009). As a result, indigenous
communities have been often sidelined in the political
decision-making process, alienating its members from
the management of natural resources within their own
traditional realms. Studies that validate traditional
indigenous knowledge are therefore necessary as tools
to empower indigenous peoples, to incorporate their
knowledge to the mainstream scientic system and
provide a framework for sustainable natural resource
management (Gratani & al., 2011).
Despite the lack of recognition of traditional
indigenous knowledge, an increasing body of research
is raising its credibility through scientic studies.
Validation of indigenous knowledge can use quantitative
(Ragupathy & Newmaster, 2009), qualitative (Fassil,
2003) or both methods (Macía, 2004). In this study, we
present a qualitative contribution to the validation of
traditional knowledge in a scarcely contacted Canelo-
Kichwa Amazonian community in Pastaza, Ecuador, of
Tabernaemontana sananho Ruiz & Pav. (Apocynaceae),
referred to as sikta in Kichwa (Quechua) language.
Sikta is a highly symbolic plant species widely used in
northern South America as a medicinal drug.
Sikta is a widespread small tree in the understory layer
of the lowland evergreen rainforests across northern South
America, from the Brazilian Amazon basin to Panama
including Colombia, Ecuador, the Guianas, Peru, Surinam
and Venezuela. Within Ecuador, it is cited in the provinces
of Napo, Orellana, Pastaza, Morona-Santiago, Zamora-
Chinchipe, the northern Sucumbíos, Carchi and Esmeraldas,
184 X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
so it is mostly distributed over the Noroccidental province
of the Amazonian biogeographical Region; this species
shares its habitat with abundant and diverse Eschweilera
(Lecythidaceae), Iryanthera (Myristicaceae) and Protium
(Burseraceae) tree species (Borgtoft & al., 1998; Anon.,
2012; Tropicos.org; Globalbioclimatics.org).
They are shrub-like small trees, repeatedly dichoto-
mously branched, with l-2 pedunculate inorescences in
the forks. Their leaves are opposite, petiolate or less often
sessile, those of a pair being equal or subequal, thick and
coriaceous. They have pentamerous sympetalous white
owers; corolla lobes overlapping to the left; anthers
mostly narrowly triangular, partly sterile; ovary with two
open sincarpic carpels, subglobose at fructication, with a
mostly eshy, often thick wall and two narrow ridges; and
fruits with many ellipsoid seeds deeply grooved on one
side. The species was rstly described in Peru by Ruiz &
Pavón (1798-1802; Plantillustrations.org; Figure 1). The
interest of this tree resides in its use as a multipurpose
remedy and symbolic plant that is “only recognized by
selected persons from ancestral cultures” (Van Beer & al.,
Figure. 1. Illustration of T. sananho Ruiz & Pavón (1798-1802) (http://www.plantillustrations.org).
185X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
The sikta tree produces a number of biologically active
substances as byproducts of its secondary metabolism.
Most of them belong to the chemical family of the indole
alkaloids (Van Beer & al., 1984), substances whose effect
is known since early times in history and that have proved
highly valuable in western medicine (Monachino, 1954).
Sikta is reported to act as a stimulant, be used as cure-
all and bears a high symbolic value, as many indigenous
peoples consider it sacred (for a summary of previously
reported uses see Appendix 1). In Colombia it has been
used to cure eye wounds, while in Brazil, a concoction
of the roots is used against rheumatic pains (Van Beer &
al., 1984). Leaves are used against syphilis, fever, and
as a heart tonic. Roots allegedly work against abscesses,
skin pathologies and colds, while the bark is employed
as a contraceptive and painkiller plus as a stimulant for
hunting dogs. A wide array of indigenous peoples uses
the sikta tree, among them, to cite some examples, the
Aguaruna of Peru (Brack Egg, 1999) and the Awa, Cofan,
Secoya, Shuar, Wao or Kichwa from Ecuador (De la Torre
& al., 2008; Luzuriaga, 2017), where sikta is in addition
regarded as a highly valued sacred plant.
The Kichwa community of Pakayaku (Bobonaza
river, Pastaza, Ecuador) includes approximately one
thousand inhabitants widely spread over their ancestral
territory, where they live in open wood cottages scattered
through the forest. The community makes contact with
the rest of the country only occasionally by radio or by
rafting the river Bobonaza for ve hours to the closest
village connected by road (Canelos). Pakayaku lacks
electric supply, medical attention, running water and
sewage network, and therefore also TV, connection to the
Internet or mobile phones. Labor division in Pakayaku is
based on sex: men work as hunters and warriors, and fell
trees to open a forest clearing or chakra where women
later cultivate the land and prepare the staple food, the
yucca. The children learn Spanish at an elementary
school, while the elderly speak only Kichwa. School
absenteeism is unfortunately rife.
This study aims to report the traditional knowledge
and uses of sikta by the Pakayaku community and lay a
framework for its scientic validation, with the objective
of incorporating the indigenous knowledge to the global
scientic network, raising the awareness of the non-
indigenous peoples and legitimate the traditional uses of
the sikta on the basis of scientic evidence.
Materials and Methods
Study area and voucher collection
The Kichwa community of Pakayaku (Bobonaza River,
Pastaza, Ecuador) lies in a fairly isolated region where
bio- and ethnodiversity studies are still lacking. One
of us (CXLQ) was based in the Biological Station
Pindo Mirador in the northern Bobonaza river basin
(1º27’09’’S-78º04’51’’W), and since 2008 in charge
of environmental monitoring and education programs
involving the local population (Figure 2).
Figure. 2. Location of the study area. The Ecuadorian province of Pastaza is highlighted.
186 X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Plant collection permits were granted by the Ministry
of the Environment. Plant vouchers were deposited at
the QAP Herbarium (Quito, Ecuador): Tabernaemontana
sananho Ruiz & Pavón. EC: Pastaza, Pakayaku, sector
of Aychatambo, 425 m, lowland evergreen forest, 28
November 2015, C. X. Luzuriaga-Q & L. Gayas (QAP
92980). Herbarium José Alfredo Paredes, Universidad
Central de Ecuador, Quito. Identication was revised by
Collective written research consent was granted by
Mrs. Luzmila Gayas, community president of the
Asembly of Pakayaku. Prior oral individual consent was
obtained from the persons taking part in our survey. Our
investigation consisted of a series of planned house visits
and walking routes accompanied by Kichwa interpreters
and local inhabitants of Pakayaku. Interviews were semi-
structured and included a series of open questions aimed
to encourage discussion. All interviews were recorded.
Two knowledgeable elders of the Pakayaku community
(hereafter n1, n2), acted as informants and agreed to
reveal their wisdom of the sikta tree. The informants
answered freely about several topics, namely Kichwa
common name, part of the plant used, description of
use, harvest season, storage (if any), concoction and
treatment target. After the eld wok, data were included
into an MS Excel spreadsheet. All recorded uses were
referred to the classication proposed by Luzuriaga
(2017), which is itself based upon De la Torre & al.
(2008). The data provided by the community were
compared with the existing ethnobotanical literature
from Ecuador and summarized in Appendix 1, while a
summary of recorded uses in Pakayaku is provided in
Appendix 2, following the classication of Pardo de
Santayana & al. (2014).
A bibliographic study was performed to provide
scientic evidence for the medicinal uses of the plant.
Results and Discussion
Our survey recorded twelve uses of sikta tree. Most of
them involve the use of the plant or plant drug as an
ethno-medicine to treat a series of conditions in human
patients, but other uses such as to deliver strength and
as a stimulant for hunting dogs were also recorded.
A list of plant drugs, uses and preparation by ethno-
pharmacological techniques is provided in Appendix 2.
The capacity to improve dog hunting skills is of
particular interest. To our knowledge, this is the rst
report for Kichwa peoples of the Bobonaza river basin.
Similar uses are reported from the Awaruna in Peru, an
indigenous group sharing a Shuar common ancestry
with the Kichwas (Luzuriaga, 2017).
Sikta trees are considered sacred by the Kichwas.
The trees bear high symbolic meaning and are regarded
as a bridge that links the person with the hidden forces of
Nature. This high symbolic meaning attributed to sikta
is also reected in the fact that trees are not felled by
the men when clearing the forest. Moreover, the location
of the individual sikta trees used by the initiated adults
is kept under secret. To our knowledge, this is the rst
time such an elevated cultural status is attributed to a
Tabernaemontana species among the Kichwa peoples.
We documented rituals aimed to cleanse the body
and soul of evil spirits. These treatments and rituals are
conducted by an informed person who prescribes a series
of indications that the patient must observe to eventually
recover health. Most requirements involve strict fasting,
with later controlled intake of a certain food such as
roasted banana prepared without any salt or peppers.
Fasting can endure from two weeks to three months.
The high symbolic status of sikta in the Kichwa
community contrasts with the more mundane uses of
Tabernaemontana reported for other native peoples of
the northern Amazon basin (summarized in Appendix 1).
The Cofan, Awa, Secoya, Wao, and Shuar of the northern
provinces of Ecuador principally use the plant as a sedative,
vulnerary and tonic, or as a stimulant and hallucinogenic
brew in concoction with species of Osteophloeum
(Myristicaceae) and Brugmansia (Solanaceae). Other uses
such as animal feeding and as building material are also
reported. Anti-parasitic activity is reported in the literature
but was not recorded in our survey.
Ethno-medicinal preparations vary in their formulation
across indigenous communities. Plant drugs employed
change from one community to another as well. For
instance, while the Canelo-Kichwa community of
Pakayaku employs sikta roots for digestive or respiratory
conditions, the Kichwas of Orellana use sikta bark or
leaves to treat colds. Similarly, the Canelo-Kichwa people
of Pakayaku use sikta leaves as vulnerary in post-delivery
bleeding while the Kichwas of Napo employ sikta latex for
the same purpose.
Towards a validation of sikta traditional uses
T. sananho is reported to be rich in indole alkaloids
(Van Beer & al., 1984), among them coronaridine,
3-hydroxycoronaridine, (-)-heyneanine, (-)-ibogamine
and voacangine, the latter being coronaridine derivatives
with iboga-type basic skeleton (Figure 3). More recently,
Rohini & Mahesh (2015) isolated the alkaloids TS1 and
TS2 from leave extracts, with ervatamine iboga-type
and monoterpene (metoxy) indole miscelaneous group
basic skeletons, respectively (Figure 4).
A series of contributions report biological activity that
can potentially explain the widespread uses of sikta by
indigenous peoples across the northern Amazon basin to
treat a wide range of conditions (Appendix 1). Van Beer
& al. (1984) and references therein reported coronaridine
activity on the autonomous and central nervous systems
as a painkiller and respiratory depressant, as well as
estrogenic activity that could account for the use of sikta
as a contraceptive. 3-hydroxycoronaridine is reported to
show antibiotic activity, while ibogamine is apparently
a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system.
Voacangine exhibited a slight central nervous stimulant
187X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Figure. 3. Coronaridine, the iboga-type basic skeleton for 3-hidroxycoronaridine, (-)-heyneanine,
(-)-ibogamine and voacangine alkaloids.
Figure. 4. TS1 (ervatamine subtype) and TS2 (monoterpene (metoxy) subtype) alkaloids described
by Rohini & Mahesh (2015).
Regarding other species of Tabernaemontana, Rizo
& al. (2013) found promising antitumoral activity in
coronaridine and heyneanine from T. catharinensis.
Rohini & Mahesh (2015) obtained successful results
when evaluating the anti-inammatory and anti-
nociceptive activity of TS1 and TS2. Pratchayasakul
& al. (2008) found that ibogamine from T. divaricata
and ibogaine presented a similar effect. The revision of
Dos Santos & al. (2017) described the anti-addictive
action of these alkaloids, which opens a window for
prospecting their use in drug detoxication programs.
Similar activity for voacangine from T. corymbosa was
reported by Xuan & al. (2006).
Indole alkaloids are reported to possess anti-
inammatory and anti-nociceptive activity (Van Beer & al.
1984). This could account for the relief of abdominal pain
and respiratory conditions attributed to sikta by the Shuar,
Wao, Cofan, and Kichwa peoples. Shuars and Kichwas
brew concoctions of diverse sikta drugs to relief pain due to
muscular and skeletal injury as well as general discomfort.
The combined anti-microbial and anti-parasitic
activity of coronaridide from T. divaricata reported
by Pratchayasakul & al. (2008) and Estevez & al.
(2007) (leishmanicidal activity) could account for the
traditional use of sikta in the treatment of infections,
parasitosis and parasitic diseases, as well as for the use
of sikta concoctions as a birth aid (potential effect on
uterine contractions), as a vulnerary and in the puerperal
hygiene of mother and child.
Bennett & Alarcón (2015) reported that the
administration of stimulant substances to hunting dogs can
enhance their sensory perception and therefore improve
the detection and capture of prey, which opens a window
for use in specialized training programs for police dogs.
The scientic validation of traditional knowledge is an
important step towards the legitimization of indigenous
culture in the global society. It is empowering for the
indigenous people as well as a valuable contribution to
contemporary science and a promotion of environmental
Coronaridine 3-Hydroxycoronaridine Heyneanine
188 X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
We are grateful to the members of the Kichwa community
of Pakayaku, Ms. Luzmila Gayas, the People’s Assembly
of Pakayaku and the collaborating ayllus (families),
for their invaluable help and cooperation. F. Centeno
Velázquez, M.V. Gil Álvarez (University of Extremadura),
& P. Escobar García (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien,
Austria) collaborated actively in the improvement of
the original manuscript. This work was funded by the
Government of Extremadura (Spain) and the European
Union through the action “Apoyos a los Planes de
Actuación de los Grupos de Investigación Catalogados de
la Junta de Extremadura: FEDER GR15080”.
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189X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Appendix 1. Synthesis of the ethnobotanical knowledge in T. sananho, from the indigenous communities of Ecuador
based on Van Beer & al. (1984), Brack Egg (1999), De la Torre & al. (2008) and the bibliographic
revision of Luzuriaga (2017).
Discipline Organ/System Part used Formulation Traditional
or Ecuador province
Medicine Digestive system Bark Cooking of shaved bark Abdominal pain Shuar Morona Santiago
Brew of shaved bark Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Brew Wao Orellana
Sap Drink with a pinch of salt
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Bark Mixed with other herbs Diarrhea Kichwa Napo
Latex licked off of fruit Shuar Zamora Chinchipe
Stem Stem is cut Shuar Napo
Intestinal gas Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Gynecology Root Cooking Postpartum nausea Kichwa Napo
Bark Brew Washing of
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Concoction with Petrea
maynensis and Usnea sp.
Contraceptive Kichwa Napo
Contraceptive Awaruna Peru
Latex Purify blood after
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Respiratory system Leaves Boiled with tobacco in a
little water then vapors
inhaled through the nose
Colds Kichwa Orellana
Bark Brew Shuar Pastaza
Shaved bark in the nose Kichwa Orellana
Latex Shaved bark in the nose
Bark Brew of shaved bark Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Brew taken on an empty
Root Coughs Awaruna Peru
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Musculature and skeleton Bark Brew of the shaved bark Inammations Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Root Brew Rheumatic pains Brazil
Rheumatic pains Awaruna Peru
Root Skin conditions,
Ocular system Eye wounds Colombia
Cardiac system Leaves Cardiac tonic Awaruna Peru
Other infectious and parasitic
Scraped bark is wrapped
in the leaves and left in
water until the next day,
then drunk as emetic
Intestinal parasites Cofán Sucumbíos
Leaves Syphilis Awaruna Peru
Latex Tupe (larvae under
Inuenza Kichwa Napo, Pastaza
Bark Brew Dysentery Shuar Pastaza
190 X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Discipline Organ/System Part used Formulation Traditional
or Ecuador province
Symptoms and states of
Body fevers Kichwa Napo
Leaves Body fevers Awaruna Peru
Latex Stimulating Shuar Orellana
Body discomfort Cofán Sucumbíos
Other medicinal uses Bark,
Additive in herbal
Increase efciency Kichwa Napo
Latex Applied to dogs nose Gain weight Wao Napo
Organ of the senses Bark Ground and applied to
Left in water, then
offered to dogs
Bark Fed to dogs Improve tness Awuaruna Peru
Fruit Sticky juice applied to
Improve smell and
Toxic and harmful Poisons, insecticides and
Bark Hunting poison Kichwa Napo
Social, symbolic and
Hallucinogenic Kichwa Napo
Bark Bark grated, brewed in
cold water and applied to
Luck and energy for
Leaves Briey cooked in water
Headache Kichwa Napo
Bark Shaved bark is cooked Sleeping Shuar Morona Santiago
Other Other Edible-
Kichwa Napo, Pastaza,
Wao Napo, Pastaza,
Shuar Pastaza, Morona
Not specied Napo, Orellana,
Stem sap Non-alcoholic
Fruit Forage, in particular
Stem Building material
191X. Luzuriaga-Quichimbo, C.; Ruiz-Téllez, T.; Blanco-Salas, J.; Cerón Martínez, C. E. Mediterranean Botany 39(2) 2018: 183-191
Appendix 2. Specic ethnobotanical uses in Pakayaku in Tabernamontana sananho. *Ancestral utilizations, aspects or
facets not previously published. Data procedence: Informants n1 and n2.
Discipline Target Drug Formulation Use
Medicine Digestive system *Root *Root is scraped and brewed in a liter of liquid. It is taken three times a
day for fteen days. Treatment is resumed after a pause.
*Leaves *Root is scraped and brewed in a liter of liquid. The leaves are boiled
in the afternoon and the next day at four in the morning the pregnant
woman is bathed.
Respiratory system *Root *Same procedure as rituals for body cleansing with roots Throat and lung
Cultural diseases *Leaves *Leaves are boiled and the resulting brew is used to bathe the patient at
4:00 a. m.
*Clear evil in the
*Patient is spanked with leaves and stems throughout the body *Against bad
Symptoms and states
of undened origin
*Root *Roots of three plant species (“three trees that are well nailed the
root”) are collected and “thin barks are scraped and thrown”. Then left
during the night in an open space (referred to as “enserenar”). The next
morning at four the person takes a glass of the resulting concoction, and
rests during the following day, being only allowed to move once to go
to the bathroom. If not getting better, repeat. At four in the afternoon
a bath in the river is taken, and the next day, the person is required to
fast, eating only roasted banana, without mayto nor any chili or salt.
This diet must be followed for fteen days or more, up to three months
(“well endured three months, our body is getting better”).
*Same procedure as for rituals of body cleansing with roots Physical
*Bark *A concoction of ten plant species, “taking into account the sunrise
and the sunset”. Plant drugs are poured into a pot and covered with
water, then boiled until dry. The resulting mixture is taken on an empty
stomach when returning from work, and before eating chicha. The rst
day a strict diet must be observed, “eat neither pepper nor salt”, but
after that “we de”.
Veterinary Sense organ Bark Five bushes are scraped in virgin forest. They are planted to be able to
take power, and nally they are given to the dogs
hunting dogs 2
Environment Others *Whole plant *This plant is regarded high cultural value “we value it is secret we do
not mistreat; we do nor cut at work we take good care”
No data Provide strength,
to blow the
men go hunting
into the forest 2